Soldiers and Spirituals: South Carolina US Colored Troops

Photo Exhibit: The Black South of Dorothea Lange
• These Depression-era images are by the renowned American photographer Dorothea Lange. During the 1930s she and other photographers were part of a Farm Security Administration project that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people. These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.
Image Source: The photographs can be found in the Library of Congress  Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
• The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.” As noted in the text below, a version of this song (under the title “THIS WORLD ALMOST DONE”) was sung by African American soldiers in Civil War South Carolina, as follows:
“Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
For dis world most done.”
Audio Source: From


As both a man of God and a man of letters, Union army colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson had an ear for spiritual music. He got earfuls of it listening to the black southern soldiers under his command during the Civil War.

As noted by Wikipedia, Higginson (1823 – 1911), born and raised in Massachusetts, “was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment, from 1862–1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples.” The 1st South Carolina Volunteers were later reorganized as the 33rd Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In literary circles, Higginson is known as “a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment… (He was the) co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems…” (per the online site for the The Emily Dickinson Museum)

In his book Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869, Higginson recounted army life among the former South Carolina slaves who made the stunning transformation into Union soldiers. One aspect of black soldier life that touched him greatly was their singing of spirituals. Higgins devotes a whole chapter of his book to those songs, and to describing the spirit in which they were sung. A partial excerpt from the book follows.

Of note is that, the spirituals were revised by the black soldiers to reflect their status as soldiers and participants in war. One song speaks of “One more valiant soldier here”; another says “We’re marching through Virginny fields, old Secesh done come and gone!” In their spirit, the soldiers seem to be saying, we are not just soldiers of the Union, or even soldiers of freedom; we are soldiers in God’s army.

Higginosn and Black Veterans
Left: Army Col Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Right: Unidentified veterans of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, USCT
Image Source: Dr. Bronson’s St. Augustine History

FROM: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, chapter 9, “Negro Spirituals”:

The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days. For instance, the present writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones. It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.

This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years heard of this class of songs under the name of “Negro Spirituals,” and had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina. I could now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before seen as in museums alone. True, the individual songs rarely coincided; there was a line here, a chorus there,—just enough to fix the class, but this was unmistakable. It was not strange that they differed, for the range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.

Often in the starlit evening, I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river, or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.

Writing down in the darkness, as I best could,—perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,—the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by… The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there were others that occurred only once or twice. The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer.

The favorite song in camp was the following, sung with no accompaniment but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet. It was sung perhaps twice as often as any other. This was partly due to the fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses of other songs might be combined at random.

"Hold your light, Brudder Robert,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore.
"What make ole Satan for follow me so?
Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.
Hold your light,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore."

This would be sung for half an hour at a time, perhaps each person present being named in turn. It seemed the simplest primitive type of “spiritual.” The next in popularity was almost as elementary, and, like this, named successively each one of the circle. It was, however, much more resounding and convivial in its music.

"Jordan River, I'm bound to go,
Bound to go, bound to go,—
Jordan River, I'm bound to go,
And bid 'em fare ye well.

"My Brudder Robert, I'm bound to go,
Bound to go," &c. 

"My Sister Lucy, I'm bound to go, 
Bound to go," &c.

Sometimes it was “tink ’em” (think them) “fare ye well.” The ye was so detached that I thought at first it was “very” or “vary well.”

Another picturesque song, which seemed immensely popular, was at first very bewildering to me. I could not make out the first words of the chorus, and called it the “Roman-dar,” being reminded of some Romaic song which I had formerly heard. That association quite fell in with the Orientalism of the new tent-life.

"O, my mudder is gone! my mudder is gone!
My mudder is gone into heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
Dere's room in dar, room in dar,
Room in dar, in de heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
Can't stay behind, my dear,
I can't stay behind!

"O, my fader is gone!" &c.

"O, de angels are gone!" &c.

"O, I'se been on de road! I'se been on de road!
I'se been on de road into heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
O, room in dar, room in dar,
Room in dar, in de heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!

By this time every man within hearing, from oldest to youngest, would be wriggling and shuffling, as if through some magic piper’s bewitchment; for even those who at first affected contemptuous indifference would be drawn into the vortex erelong.

Next to these in popularity ranked a class of songs belonging emphatically to the Church Militant, and available for camp purposes with very little strain upon their symbolism. This, for instance, had a true companion-in-arms heartiness about it, not impaired by the feminine invocation at the end.

"One more valiant soldier here,
One more valiant soldier here,
One more valiant soldier here,
To help me bear de cross.
O hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary, hail!
To help me bear de cross."
"My army cross over,
My army cross over,
O, Pharaoh's army drowndedl
My army cross over.

"We'll cross de mighty river,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de river Jordan,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de danger water,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de mighty Myo,
My army cross over. (Thrice.)
O, Pharaoh's army drowndedl
My army cross over."
"Ride in, kind Saviour!
No man can hinder me.
O, Jesus is a mighty man!
No man, &c.
We're marching through Virginny fields.
No man, &c.
O, Satan is a busy man,
No man, &c.
And he has his sword and shield,
No man, &c.
O, old Secesh done come and gone!
No man can hinder me."
"Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
Keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
Keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
For dis world most done.
So keep your lamp, &c.
Dis world most done."
"O, Jordan bank was a great old bank,
Dere ain't but one more river to cross.
We have some valiant soldier here,
Dere ain't, &c.
O, Jordan stream will never run dry,
Dere ain't, &c.
Dere's a hill on my leff, and he catch on my right,
Dere ain't but one more river to cross."

I could get no explanation of this last riddle, except, “Dat mean, if you go on de leff, go to ‘struction, and if you go on de right, go to God, for sure.”

"I know moon-rise, I know star-rise,
Lay dis body down.
I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight,
To lay dis body down.
I'll walk in de graveyard, I'll walk through de graveyard,
To lay dis body down.
I'll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms;
Lay dis body down.
I go to de judgment in de evenin' of de day,
When I lay dis body down;
And my soul and your soul will meet in de day
When I lay dis body down."
"I'll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms."

Never, it seems to me, since man first lived and suffered, was his infinite longing for peace uttered more plaintively than in that line.

"O, blow your trumpet, Gabriel,
Blow your trumpet louder;
And I want dat trumpet to blow me home
To my new Jerusalem.

"De prettiest ting dat ever I done
Was to serve de Lord when I was young.
So blow your trumpet, Gabriel, &c.

"O, Satan is a liar, and he conjure too,
And if you don't mind, he'll conjure you.
So blow your trumpet, Gabriel, &c.

"O, I was lost in de wilderness.
King Jesus hand me de candle down.
So blow your trumpet, Gabriel," &c.
"No more peck o' corn for me,
No more, no more,—
No more peck o' corn for me,
Many tousand go.

"No more driver's lash for me, (Twice.)
No more, &c.

"No more pint o' salt for me, (Twice.)
No more, &c.

"No more hundred lash for me, (Twice.)
No more, &c.

"No more mistress' call for me,
No more, no more,—
No more mistress' call for me,
Many tousand go."
"O, de ole nigger-driver!
O, gwine away!
Fust ting my mammy tell me,
O, gwine away!
Tell me 'bout de nigger-driver,
O, gwine away!
Nigger-driver second devil,
O, gwine away!
Best ting for do he driver,
O, gwine away!
Knock he down and spoil he labor,
O, gwine away!"
"O, dey call me Hangman Johnny!
O, ho! O, ho!
But I never hang nobody,
O, hang, boys, hang!
O dey, call me Hangman Johnny!
O, ho! O, ho!
But we'll all hang togedder,
O, hang, boys, hang!"

My presence (during the singing of Hangman Johnny, which Higginson identified as a secular song) apparently checked the performance of another verse, beginning, “De buckra ‘list for money,” apparently in reference to the controversy about the pay-question, then just beginning, and to the more mercenary aims they attributed to the white soldiers. (NOTE: For over a year, African American soldiers were paid only half of what white soldiers received, a situation which caused much discontent among the black soldiers. Eventually the pay was equalized, and retroactive back-pay was authorized.)

These quaint religious songs were to the men more than a source of relaxation; they were a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven.

I never overheard in camp a profane or vulgar song. With the trifling exceptions given, all had a religious motive, while the most secular melody could not have been more exciting. A few youths from Savannah, who were comparatively men of the world, had learned some of the “Ethiopian Minstrel” ditties, imported from the North. These took no hold upon the mass; and, on the other hand, they sang reluctantly, even on Sunday, the long and short metres of the hymn-books, always gladly yielding to the more potent excitement of their own “spirituals.” By these they could sing themselves, as had their fathers before them, out of the contemplation of their own low estate, into the sublime scenery of the Apocalypse.

I remember that this minor-keyed pathos used to seem to me almost too sad to dwell upon, while slavery seemed destined to last for generations; but now that their patience has had its perfect work, history cannot afford to lose this portion of its record. There is no parallel instance of an oppressed race thus sustained by the religious sentiment alone. These songs are but the vocal expression of the simplicity of their faith and the sublimity of their long resignation.

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